This week’s guest columnist is Dr. Chad Mathews, a Family Practice resident at the University Hospital and Clinics here in Lafayette.
Flu season is here. If you’ve never had the flu, you’re fortunate. Dr. Hamilton tells the story of when he had it. Besides the cough, headache, and body aches, he was under the covers shivering violently from fever despite having taken both ibuprofen and Tylenol. He was shaking so badly he swore he had something worse than influenza, though tests showed that’s all it was. Since then Dr. Hamilton gets the shot every year.
The “flu” we’re talking about is the Influenza virus. It affects all ages, little ones too. It usually attacks the upper airways, causing cough, runny nose, and sore throat. It can also affect the GI tract, with vomiting and diarrhea. What’s universal is a whole week of misery, with headache and fever and hit-by-a-truck fatigue. It’s particularly rough on babies, and children with asthma, who are at risk for complications like pneumonia and dehydration.
While most viruses have no treatment and must run their course, influenza is one of the few with a medicine that can help- Tamiflu. Tamiflu may shorten the time kids are sick, and make them less contagious. It should be started within 48 hours of onset of illness or it won’t help at all, and it only shaves a few days off the week of misery.
Thus the best treatment will always be prevention. Influenza is highly contagious, easily passed between kids by coughing and sneezing on each other, and touching each other with infected hands; in other words flu is passed when kids “slime” one another. Kids should therefore be taught to cough and sneeze into their hands or elbow crook, and wash their hands often.
The other extremely effective weapon against influenza is vaccination. To illustrate the vaccine’s effectiveness, a 2014 study showed 74% decreased pediatric intensive care admissions in vaccinated kids; meaning 74% fewer kids got influenza’s life-threatening complications. And a flu vaccine not only protects the kid who gets it, but all the other kids around him whom he WON’T infect.
I know one old Cajun who just won’t get the influenza vaccine. He agrees it’s a good idea and used to get the vaccine every year. However, he got sick every year right after the shot. In fact, it seemed he was getting the flu itself- long lasting cough, fever, aches, fatigue, upset stomach. “Ain’t goin’ do it,” he exclaims, “had enough gittin’ sick from dat shot!”
Like we mentioned above, influenza virus is highly contagious, and highly miserable. It comes around in wintertime, makes you and your kids feel rotten for a whole week, and spreads easily. Besides hand washing and avoidance, vaccination is the best way to prevent getting it.
Why do you need a shot every year? Don’t you stay immune? Unfortunately, every year the influenza virus changes chemically- it evolves to fool your immune system and sneak by. So every few years scientists have to make predictions about how the virus might change, and tweak the vaccine’s design. Then you need the new shot to cover the new strain.
What about that old Cajun who believes he gets the flu from the shot? I’ve encountered other families who refused the vaccine because of this concern. However, it’s impossible to get influenza from the vaccine. This is because the virus in the vaccine is either “inactivated,” meaning it’s ability to reproduce in your body has been removed, or the vaccine is “recombinant,” meaning that only pieces of the virus are in the vaccine.
So saying you can get the flu from the vaccine is like saying you are going to drive your car to the store, even though the engine has been removed (“inactivated”), or the only parts of your car available are the steering wheel and a fender (“recombinant”). Either way, you’re not getting to the store.
People who seem to get influenza from the vaccine are actually catching the flu (or other illnesses) around the time they’re getting vaccinated, but before the vaccine can “take.” If you’re in the office waiting for your shot, and the kid next to you already has it and coughs on you, too late! You’re going to get sick before your immune system has a chance to build immunity to the virus. Bad luck!